EVER since mankind turned from hunting and gathering to crop production to enhance food productivity, the plough has been an indispensable implement.
By Mthandazo Nyoni
The original ploughs used thousands of years ago were made of roughly shaped pieces of wood which wore out quickly, but they served well enough for early subsistence farmers, who needed to cultivate only small pieces of land to feed their families.
With the discovery of iron and iron smelting, man formed a stronger material for his weapons of war and agriculture implements. The plough made of beaten iron replaced the wooden tools. In old times, most farm implements were made by village black-smiths, large brawny men who beat piles of heated metal into shape by hand using heavy hammers. Southern Eye (SE) business reporter, Mthandazo Nyoni spoke with Mealie Brand managing director, Walter Chigwada (WC), over the company’s history and prospects. Mealie Brand, based in Bulawayo, is a division of Zimbabwe Stock Exchange-listed Zimplow.
SE: When was the company formed/established?
WC: The company now called Zimplow was mooted in 1939. At that time all agricultural implements were imported from overseas but with the clouds of the Second World War looming on the horizon, supplies would have been uncertain. The company was incorporated in 1939 with the name of Rhodesian Plough and Machinery Company. The first managing director was G Baecher, a member of one of the largest implements factories in Europe. He was brought out by the board of directors from the Czech Republic to start the factory. The first plough left the factory in August 1939 just before the commencement of the Second World War, when regular supplies from overseas became virtually impossible. The first premises occupied by the company were at the corner of 12th Avenue and Lobengula Street, opposite the Power Station. The company purchased its own site in Steelworks Road, heavy industrial sites in 1941 and constructed its own buildings which it still occupies to this day. After independence the company’s name changed from Rhoplow to Zimplow Limited. The company has grown steadily over the years, proving that small-scale agriculture will not be consigned to the pages of a history textbook as some people mistakenly believe. The unemployment rates in Africa demand that small-scale agriculture be nurtured and grown, guaranteeing the future of small-scale agricultural equipment manufacturers like Zimplow. Zimplow Limited is the leading manufacturer of animal-drawn implements in sub-Saharan Africa.
SE: Which products were being produced at the company’s inception?
WC: The company manufactures a wide range of implements which have faithfully served generations of farmers. When Zimplow first began operations in Bulawayo, the only implement it produced was the single-furrow plough. Seventy-nine years later, the company has evolved into a world-class manufacturer able to assemble a plough every three minutes, and manufactures a wide range of animal-drawn implements. In July 1998 Zimplow was certified to ISO 9002 of 1994 and this was upgraded in May 2002 to the then new ISO 9001 2000 standard before transitioning to ISO 9001 of 2008 in July 2010. Zimplow is currently one of the few companies in Zimbabwe that have successfully transitioned to the latest ISO 9001 of 2015 standard which was achieved in July 2017. Over the years Zimplow has re-engineered its products to offer the farmer better value. A case in point is the single-furrow plough. It was realised that over the years and with the incidence of drought, the quality of draught animals was deteriorating. It was also realised that there was an increase in the use of donkeys or draught power, making the weight of our plough counterproductive.
Zimplow’s original standard plough had a mass of 39kg, which was subsequently reduced to 35kg through production of lighter steel sections for implements without compromising quality. Zimplow has developed an even lighter plough — 29kg specifically for use with donkeys. From trials held in the Matabeleland province of Zimbabwe, this plough’s performance proved equal to the MB200 plough and was enthusiastically welcomed by those who used it, particularly the women farmers. This unit was released onto the market for the 2002 season. Besides these ploughs Zimplow also has a range of cultivators suitable for oxen and donkeys. The company is also re-engineering its Pitman drive planter that has been in the market for 40 to 50 years and has largely remained unchanged. It is intended to make the planter more adaptable to a wider seed variety. At present the planter accommodates maize, millet and sorghum. The new developments aim to make the planter easier to maintain and to enhance its reliability, operation and accuracy. Other members of the Mealie Brand family are ridgers, triangular, diamond and zigzag harrows, groundnut shellers and hoes.
The new challenge to established manufacturers is that of conservation agriculture. Zimplow is aware of the potential benefits and desires to be a part of this transformation in farming. Zimplow has therefore defined its research and development aims to include this aspect and is working with various agricultural research institutes. As a large-scale manufacturer, Zimplow is ideally positioned to contribute meaningfully to conservation agriculture through the supply of affordable animal-drawn conservation tillage implements.
SE: Which products are you currently producing/manufacturing?
WC: The company has now evolved into draught animal power mechanization solutions provider for the smallholder with a footprint throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The products manufactured by the company include ploughs, harrows, planters, cultivators, hoes, scotch carts, maize and groundnut shellers, among others. The product offering is designed to providing a total mechanization solution to the farmer from groundbreaking and soil preparation, planting, weed control, post-harvest handling and on farm and other transport requirement solutions using scotch carts.
Over the years, Zimplow has developed large distribution networks that serve the needs not only of the local market, but also countries within the region. In 1998 the company split the local and export market and introduced two teams to service these respective areas. These efforts have seen a rapid growth in the export market which reflect in our results over the past two years. Zimplow is actively involved in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Angola, and more recently East Africa. A major breakthrough was made in East Africa in 2001 despite competition with China and India. The Mealie Brand products are becoming a household name in Africa. Zimplow is exporting into Sudan and Ethiopia and is now looking at exporting into West Africa.
SE: What are the company’s prospects about the future in business?
WC: With many African economies diversifying into agriculture for food security reasons, we remain optimistic about the future as regards requirement for our type of mechanisation solutions for the smallholder farmer. We also believe that there are opportunities for us to broaden our product offering in order to consolidate our position as the leading provider of mechanisation solutions in this sector.
SE: What is your social corporate responsibility (CSR)?
WC: Mealie Brand has participated in a number CSR events with the latest one being the sponsorship of the Bulawayo Arts Awards where in addition to the sponsorship to the event, we also took part in recognising the iconic Conte Mhlanga’s lifetime achievement award by donating a plough as a token of our appreciation as he went into retirement. The other notable CSR projects that we have done in the past include the refurbishment of the Emergency and Casualty Ward at Mpilo Central Hospital, donations of food rations to Engutsheni Hospital and we continue to sponsor prizes for students in agricultural colleges.
SE: What is the company’s current staff complement?
WC: Currently the company has a staff complement of 200, down from 230 in February due to the shortage of raw materials, as the foreign currency shortage persists.
SE: What is the company’s current operational capacity?
WC: This varies because of the seasonal nature of our products but since January we have been operating at 80%.
SE: What major challenges are you facing?
WC: The shortage of foreign currency remains our major challenge as we are struggling to secure raw material requirements ahead of the coming agricultural trading season. The other challenge is that while our products are now protected from dumping through cheap imports coming into the country, the impact of that protection remains elusive due to our porous borders.
SE: Can you comment on the export volumes?
WC: As reported in the recently released financials, our export volumes have been increasing in the last two years. In the last two years, we took a deliberate position to have a presence on the Zambian market and this has helped us to reposition and consolidate our position in that market.